Bret McKenzie Talks Muppets, Ricky Gervais, 'Flight of the Conchords' Film
By Mike Ayers, New York | April 01, 2014 4:00 PM EDT
The former "Flight of the Conchords" star has been busy writing music for "Muppets Most Wanted" since winning an Oscar composing for its 2011 predecessor
The Muppets are currently back in theaters with "Muppets Most Wanted," a sequel to the 2011 blockbuster that won songwriter/comedian Bret McKenzie a Best Original Song Oscar for "Man or Muppet." McKenzie returned as the music supervisor for the "Muppets Most Wanted" soundtrack, which entered this week at No. 68 on the Billboard 200 and No. 4 on the soundtrack chart. "The songs are very story-driven," he says of reprising his Muppets work. "I get the script and the characters' perspective comes out from where the story is going. We got these total heavyweights, this killer L.A. session band. I loosely directed them and I'm doing Muppet impressions while they're playing along."
After initially breaking out as "Bret" on HBO's cult comedy "Flight of the Conchords," McKenzie's full-time gig these days has shifted to more behind-the-scenes work with soundtracks and scripts. Billboard spoke to him earlier this week from his home in New Zealand, where he detailed his latest Muppet creations, why Ricky Gervais might be the next Meat Loaf, his new projects and more.
You resumed your duties as music supervisor for "Muppets Most Wanted." What was different this time?
I did all the songs. Last time, I did two or three of them. I came on board at the beginning, whereas last time I came on halfway through and helped sort things out. From the beginning, I was trying to write a group of songs as a whole, rather than doing one at a time. The studio trusted me a lot more. I don't think anyone at the studio really knew what ("Flight of the Conchords") was. So they just saw some random New Zealander who just walked in. They weren't sure what I was up to last time. This time, they were hands off and really supportive.
You had to prove yourself the first time around, to write songs for Muppets.
[Laughs.] Exactly. The weird thing about the Muppets is that they're kind of sacred and silly at the same time. I'm from a generation that grew up with the Muppets, so I took the job pretty seriously. I didn't want to ruin the legacy [laughs]. Even with Conchords stuff, when we were doing songs that were parodies, they were more a homage than parody.
After the success of the last soundtrack and "Man or Muppet," do you have any theories as to why people connect to songs sung by Muppets?
It's very weird writing a song that's going to be sung by a puppet. Now I'm an expert. One of the key elements of the Muppets success, is that they're not perfect. And that makes them incredibly relatable. There's so much character in their voices and performances; it's so human in a weird way. Some of the key characters like Kermit, Piggy and Fozzie -- they really hold up 40 years later. Working on the movie, you forget that they're puppets [laughs].
Is it easier for you to write for the Muppets now? Do you have their perspective down better?
A lot easier. I now do the demos myself, doing bad Muppet impressions. They're getting quite good now. My Miss Piggy almost made it into the film. Miss Piggy is my strong Muppet voice. If everything turns south, I could launch a career doing a Miss Piggy tour.
Like a weird, grown adult male Miss Piggy cover band.
[Laughs]. Yes, a Miss Piggy Tribute Band.
The Muppets covered "Moves Like Jagger" on the new soundtrack. What makes a pop song "Muppetable" ?
The best ones have an animal reference in them. Elton John's "Crocodile Rock" is one of my favorites. Cee-Lo's "f*** You" was quite cute with the chickens.
Did you work with Ricky Gervais?
We were in the studio, when we did his vocal in London. I'm a big fan of his. You know he had a band in the '80s?
Yeah. I feel like he's got a great rock and roll voice. He could really pursue a Bruce Springsteen-type career if he wanted. He's got a big, powerful, gravely [voice]. It's got a Meatloaf quality as well. If only he could keep himself from giggling during his performances. That would be one of the problems with his rock and roll show. He'd crack up too much.
Did you two ever kick around a music-based project?
We didn't actually. But that's a good idea.
You mentioned "Flight of the Conchords." A few years ago, there was talk of a film being written. How's that going?
Um ... very slowly would be an exaggeration. We haven't really cracked that one. It'll happen at the right time.
What new projects are you working on?
I'm working on a fairy tale musical for Warner Brothers. That's in the early stages. I'm writing the songs for that. I'm working on a couple scripts. A Fox animated comedy, about a NASA base. An obsolete NASA base. It's still in development. We're still drawing pictures, and I'm working on the scripts. The working title is called "Work Space."
Because you won the Oscar for "Man or Muppet," did you vote for the winning song this past year?
No. I don't think you automatically become ... or I didn't fill out the right form, but I didn't vote for that.
There's probably some forms you need to fill out.
A lot of forms, I don't get, because I live in New Zealand. I'm a big fan of the song "Happy." I was disappointed that didn't win.
Bret McKenzie's most wanted
By Leena Tailor
3:00 PM Friday Apr 4, 2014
Bret McKenzie's first Muppets gig got him an Oscar. No pressure then on writing songs for the sequel. Leena Tailor reports.
Working with the film's leading stars was a highlight for McKenzie.
On a Sunday morning in Beverly Hills, Bret McKenzie is the life of the Muppets Most Wanted press conference. As journalists await a highly-anticipated Q&A session with Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, the Kiwi comedian keeps them in hysterics, piping in with jokes about daylight saving, Lady Gaga and the royal baby before pulling out his Kermit telephone - much to the delight of hard-to-crack reporters.
"I was a little nervous before I went out there," he confesses to TimeOut afterwards.
Such nerves are somewhat surprising given the huge Hollywood moments the Kiwi comedian has faced in recent years - from debuting his first leading rom-com role in Austenland to signing a deal with American network Fox to develop his own animated series.
The most memorable though, was that night two years ago when he accepted the Academy Award for Best Original Song for Man or Muppet, which he penned for the 2011 film.
Such an accolade naturally amplified pressure to deliver incredible music for the sequel - right?
"Um, yes," he laughs, adding that the Oscar sits on his piano at home in Wellington and recalling nervous glances at the gold statue, wondering if his work was good enough.
"But then I moved to LA, hired a space on Hollywood Boulevard and put a piano in there. It was this dusty old shop to hide away and work on the songs, but people would be walking by hearing me hitting the piano and come in asking if there were music lessons or if I was part of some art installation."
Once settled in LA, McKenzie, 37, stopped thinking about the award and got stuck into writing tracks for the film, which follows the Muppets as they head out on tour, playing sell-out shows in Berlin, Madrid and London.
Mayhem ensues when the "World's Number One Criminal" Constantine - who happens to be Kermit's doppelganger - and his sidekick Dominic (Ricky Gervais) entangle the clan in their global crime caper.
The filmmakers were flooded with celebrities wanting to join the sequel and everyone from Usher and Lady Gaga to Celine Dion and Christoph Waltz make appearances.
While penning the ballad Something So Right for Miss Piggy and Dion - whose vocals were recorded in Las Vegas then emailed to McKenzie - was "a dream come true", working with the film's leading stars was also a highlight.
"Ricky's one of my heroes. A lot of people don't know this, but he was a in a band in the 80s so he's an actual singer and he was great in the studio because he's got a John Farnham sound. A big, rock voice.
"Ty [Burrell] I'm a big fan of and Tina Fey was another hero of mine. She's not much of a singer, but she got really into it and did a great job.
"It's a pretty awesome job getting to work with people who I really like."
It wasn't just Hollywood stars getting in on the Muppet action. McKenzie's Flight of the Concords partner Jemaine Clement (who turned down working on the music with McKenzie for the first film) nabbed a role as a prisoner, working closely with Fey's feisty prison guard alter-ego Nadya and taking the lead in the jailbirds' musical number Working in the Coal Mine.
"That was [director] James Bobin's idea," says McKenzie. "They needed another prisoner so they got Jemaine to be a Russian con!"
"We didn't work together much - just a little on the finale."
Though the Grammy-winning FOTC pair have long been popular in the States, McKenzie says having "Oscar-winner" on his resume has helped open more doors.
McKenzie is also working on a "Labyrinth-style fairytale musical comedy," which he envisions filming in NZ, but for now half of his time is spent in the US.
Wife Hannah Clarke visits frequently with their children, Vita, four and Leo, three, who "literally think I work with Kermit the Frog".
He smiles recalling the duo singing along to songs he wrote for the film, but says he doesn't see the movies as children's films.
"I don't feel like I'm making kids' films. I know that it's family-friendly, but I just do what I find funny and I honestly believe it translates to children.
"There's no need to patronise them by thinking, 'Ok, the kids will like this joke', because kids find things funny that they might not understand. They find the same things funny that adults do by the way people deliver and by people's expressions.
"That's the great thing about Henson's work. He didn't ever play down to children. They just did what they found funny, so the Muppets play amazingly to both adults and kids."
Who: Bret McKenzie, returning to his Muppets composer role
What: Muppets Most Wanted
When: Opens April 10
- NZ Herald
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